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Looking sharp

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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Recently, a couple of guys with a bunch of sharp knives cleaned out my wallet. It was a mugging of a culinary rather than criminal nature. I’ve emerged poorer but unscathed, and I’m here to tell you that you can buy a great basic knife and keep it in good shape without spending too much money.

It all started a few months ago in the kitchen at Seattle’s Union restaurant. “Hey, check out my new knife,” said chef Ethan Stowell.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A chef's knife can handle pretty much any kitchen task, including mincing herbs."]

“What’d you get?” I asked. “Wüsthof? Global?”

He shook his head like I’d asked if his cool new car was an Olds or a Plymouth. “It’s a Blazen.”

Blazen? How could Stowell’s cool new knife be a brand I’d never heard of?

He handed me the knife, which was surprisingly short and light. Don’t professional chefs use enormous hunks of German steel? This blade was engraved with Japanese kanji.
“Here, try it,” said Stowell. He put a shallot down on the cutting board and handed me the Blazen. It went through the shallot so smoothly, I wasn’t sure at first that I’d actually cut it. (Good thing I was keeping an eye on my fingers.) Suddenly my Henckels seemed like a big dumb hunk of lead.

h3. Bargain shopping

Walk into nearly any kitchen store in America and you’ll find four brands of knives: Wüsthof, Henckels, Global, and Shun. The salesperson will try to convince you to spend up to $120 on a knife.

Don’t get me wrong; all of these brands offer good products, and I don’t think $120 is too much to spend on a tool you’ll use every day and will last decades. I mean, how much did you pay for your computer?

But you don’t need to spend that much to get an excellent knife, and if you’re ready to spend more than $100, you can get a fantastic piece that will last decades and make you feel like you could beat a Cuisinart in a human-versus-machine contest.

[%image mamsterkanji float=right width=300 caption="Japanese script on Amster-Burton's Togiharu gyuto knife."]

First, let’s talk about the Forschner Victorinox chef's knife, made in Germany. As Helen Rennie put it in a Front Burner column last year, “If you are more of a Honda than a Ferrari cook, I suggest you get an eight-inch Forschner, which retails for about $25.”

A few years ago, I bought a Forschner to use as my “vacation knife” and found, to my surprise, that not only did I like it just as well as my $120 Henckels, but it was better out of the box; because the spine of the knife was smoothed, it didn’t create a painful callus. I guess I’m a Honda cook.

The Forschner is a miracle. It’s not pretty, and not everybody likes the handle, but it’s sharp, heavy-duty, and fun to use. To extend the car metaphor, it’s as if you discovered a boxy but reliable new car selling for $1,200. Before buying any other knife, try the Forschner, which is available at restaurant-supply stores, some kitchen stores, and on Amazon. If you like it, you’re all set; if you don’t, you’re only out $25.

h3. Luxury shopping

As a certified gearhead, however, I wasn’t content with just my Germans. After playing around in the kitchen with Stowell's Blazen, I wanted a Japanese knife.


h1. Knife maintenance


Any sharp knife is better than any dull knife, and most people use dull knives. Keep your knife sharp with a steel, one of those long sticks with a handle on the end. A ceramic steel is the best choice; an Idahone steel costs about $25. 

Steeling is easier than you might think, and it’s not a tragedy if you don’t get the perfect angle. But steeling doesn't sharpen a knife; it just helps maintain the existing edge, which will eventually fail. A good way to see if your knife needs sharpening is to slice a tomato. If you have trouble breaking the skin, and the steel doesn't help, it's time to sharpen.

If you like the idea of busting out some whetstones and grinding a new edge, sharpening isn't hard to learn and the equipment isn’t very expensive. Korin sells a tutorial DVD, and Chad Ward's book An Edge in the Kitchen has several illustrated chapters on sharpening. Electric sharpeners such as Chef's Choice work well on German knives but not on Japanese knives.

Me? I take my knives to Epicurean Edge. For a typical home cook, taking your knives to a professional sharpener once a year is a good rule of thumb (especially if you’ve sliced that thumb on a dull knife lately). Make it a New Year's resolution.


To be clear, the Japanese knives I’m going to talk about are not the traditional knives used by sushi chefs; those are single-bevel knives, sharpened on only one side. I’m talking about Western-influenced knives that would be comfortable in the hand of any American home cook.

Stowell bought his Blazen at a store in Kirkland, Washington, called Epicurean Edge, which carries over a dozen brands I’d never heard of. Yoshikane. Kumagoro. Asai. Sakon. Some are handmade and some are industrially machined. They range in price from $50 to over $1,000. Some are fantastically beautiful, with polished wooden handles and damascus-patterned blades that look like a readout from a seismograph with artistic tendencies.

“Across the board, Japanese knives have better-quality steel than German,” said Daniel O’Malley, the owner of Epicurean Edge. They also tend to be designed with a different philosophy: a light, thin, extremely sharp blade that glides through food, rather than the German model of a galumphing heavy blade that elbows its way to the cutting board.

“The knife does the work for you” is the aphorism you hear about German knives. But O’Malley (who does sell Wüsthof at his shop) scoffs at this: “I believe fairly strongly that most people, when they try a thin, light knife, will find that’s not true.”

I didn't buy a Japanese knife. I bought two. One is an expensive santoku (Ryusen Damascus brand, $140). The other is the cheapest chef's knife (Togiharu brand, $55) sold by Korin, a leading mail-order Japanese knife shop. 

The santoku is better-looking and a little sharper, but I find myself reaching for the chef's knife (gyuto in Japanese) more often: it's astonishingly light for its size, and I like the extra length. 

To me, a Japanese chef's knife offers all of the benefits of the santoku (sharpness and light weight) with more reach. That's just one cook's opinion, though: I know two professional chefs who own plenty of different knives but love their santokus.

Having now spent quality time with four different chef's knives, my favorite is the nimble 8-inch Togiharu gyuto. But if you forced me to go back to the Forschner, I wouldn't mind too much. 

In case all of this information has led you to start comparing knife features the way some people (um, me) agonize over digital cameras, I’ll give the last word to my brother Jake Amster, who works in a kitchen store.

“They’re just knives,” he said. “They all cut stuff. You spend more than 10 bucks, it’s going to be OK.”

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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mamsterkanji, l